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Corn Then and Now

William Collier
People, Land, and Food
Professor Thomas Foggin

Corn or Zea Mays is a cereal grain that was domesticated in Mesoamerica
(modern day Mexico and parts of Central America) around 7,000 years ago
(Staller 579). From central Mexico it spread north and south throughout the
Americas, and eventually spanned the globe. Corn was an important staple crop
and was an integral part of North American, Mesoamerican, South American,
and Caribbean cultures long before the occurrence of the Columbian exchange.
In this paper I will discuss the difficulties faced when attempting to uncover
corn’s mysterious past. From there I will discuss the origin of corn, and its Pre
Columbian diffusion into North and South America. I will also discuss early corn
farming techniques of the Native Americans. Finally I will discuss the dispersal
of the corn seed after Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and
how corn is utilized in modern day. Corn has an extremely rich history; in this
paper we will follow it from its early stage as Teosinte, to the larger modern day
version of corn.

Mysterious corn:
Corn is easily hybridized and therefore has more varieties than any other
crop species in the world. There are thousands of varieties of corn, so many
different types that taxonomists have categorized corn into 300 different races
for the Western Hemisphere alone. Earlier, when corn seemed simpler than it
does in modern day, textbooks divided it into six types: dent, flint, flour, sweet,
pop, and waxy (seen in the image to the right). Today they are divided into more
complex categories called “racial complexes” (Staller 24). Northern Flints, Great

Plains Flints and Flours, Pima-Papago, Southwestern Sediments, Southwestern 12-row,
Southern Dents, Derived Southern Dents, Southeastern Flints,
and Corn Belt Dents are nine major racial complexes of corn in
the U.S. excluding popcorns and sweet corns (some examples are
seen in the image to the left), because of the abundance of corn
species it is difficult to pinpoint its exact origin, but there is
archaeological evidence showing that early maize was cultivated
in central Mexico around 7,000 years ago.
The late great Paul Mangelsdorf, Harvard Professor and corn historian asked the
question, “What is the Corn?” he answered, “Corn is a mystery…and mysteries are there
to be solved” (Fussell 59). Corn isn’t a mysterious plant simply because of the sheer
variety of species; the plant itself was peculiar in form and function. The first scientists to
examine New World corn were puzzled by the structure of the corn plant. “This Corne is
a marvelous strange plant, nothing resembling any other kind of grayne” wrote Henry
Lyte in A New Herbal of 1619, “for it bringeth forth his seede cleane contrarie from the
place whereas the Floures grow, which is against the nature and kinds of all other plants”
(Fussell 59). Corn is agronomically unusual in its structure; the seeds grow in one place
and the flowers sprout in another area of the plant. In modern lingo, the ear of corn is
distant from the tassel. Corn plants contain both male and female parts.

The male part, or tassel is situated at the top of the plant,
they form after the leaves have grown. The tassel is composed of many branches, along
which many small male flowers. Each male flower releases a large number of pollen
grains; each grain contains the male sex cell. The female plant structure is called an ear. It
develops at the tip of a shank, which is a small stalk like structure that grows out from a
leaf node about halfway between the ground and the tassel, seen in the image below. The
distance between the ear and tassel was puzzling to early scientists like Mangelsdorf and
Lyte; these odd characteristics had to occur for some reason, the extreme change in corn
over the years was peculiar, and it didn’t seem plausible that the evolution of corn was a
natural occurrence. The answer to this mystery is a process known as selective breeding.
Corn was changed over thousands of years corn was bread for specific traits; from the
small and fragile Teosinte to the fleshy more fruitful Early Maize.

Pre Columbian:
Over thousands of years, Native Americans purposefully transformed corn
through special cultivation techniques. Corn, or maize as the Native Americans called it
was developed from a wild grass known as Teosinte, originally growing in southern
Mexico over 7,000 years ago (Russell 127). The kernels of Teosinte looked very different
from today's corn. These kernels were small and were not fused together like the kernels

on the husked ear of early maize and modern corn. Pictured below you can see the
distinct difference between the less fruitful primitive Teosinte plant, and the more
developed fruit of the Early Maize.

By systematically collecting and cultivating those plants best suited for human
consumption, Native Americans encouraged the formation of ears or cobs on Early
Maize. The first ears of maize were only a few inches long and had only eight rows of
kernels, containing roughly 50 kernels of corn compared to modern day corn’s 300-400
kernels (Staller 15). The difference in size is tremendous. Teosinte had the appearance of
modern day wheat; the kernels were very small and held together weakly, this caused
issues when picking the Teosinte because many kernels fell off and were lost during the
harvest. Cob length and size of early maize grew over the next several thousand years,
which in turn increased the yields of each crop. This process is known as selective
breeding, a process that Charles Darwin explains in his book entitled the Origin of
Species. The idea behind selective breeding is to take subjects, in our case corn that have
certain characteristics i.e. larger and sturdier fruits, breeding them and in turn yielding
offspring with the same characteristics. Selective breeding is a process that occurs in
domestication of most plants and animals.
Eventually the productivity of maize cultivation was great enough to make it
possible and worthwhile for a family to produce food for the bulk of their diet for an
entire year from a small area. Although maize agriculture permitted a family to live in
one place for an extended period of time, the commitment to the crop involved demands
on human time and labor, which often restricted human mobility. The genetic alterations
in Teosinte changed its value as a food resource and at the same time affected the human
scheduling necessary for its effective procurement. The formation of agriculture was the
transition stage from a hunter-gatherer and nomadic lifestyle to more of a sedentary type

existence. Despite the commitment to the crops, early natives still migrated and corn
seeds spread north and south throughout the Americas.

Early cultivation techniques:
Maize was planted by the Native Americans in a complex system known as the
“Three Sisters” where beans squash and corn were grown together. The agricultural fields
consisted of small mounds of tilled earth, placed a meter or two apart sometimes in rows
and other times randomly placed. Kernels of corn and beans were planted in the raised
piles of soil to provide the support of the cornstalk for the bean vine to grow around. The
spaces in between the mounds were planted with squash or melon seeds (Russell 127).
The three crops complemented each other both in the field and in their combined
nutrition. The crops grew together and complimented one another in a type of symbiotic
relationship; the stalks supported bean growth and the squash reduced weed infestation
while maintaining soil integrity. This planting process seems simple but in fact was very
innovative for the time.

Post Columbian:
Before 1492 and the Columbian exchange, corn was found close to where it
originated in central Mexico, mainly the southern region of North America, most of
Mesoamerica, northern South America, and some Caribbean islands. After 1492 and the
Columbian exchange corn traveled back to Europe where it was cultivated mainly in the
central and southern regions. It then eventually migrated to southern Asia, around India,
and from there moved eastward.
Today corn is cultivated all over the world. A greater weight of corn is produced
annually than any other grain. The United States is responsible for roughly half of the
world’s crop yield; other top corn producers include China, France, Indonesia, India, and
South Africa. Below the map illustrates the areas that produce corn, and the percentage of
annual yield they produce. Worldwide production was over 600 million metric tons in
2003 just slightly more than rice or wheat. In 2004, close to 33 million hectares of maize
were planted worldwide, with a production value of more than 23 billion dollars (UN
Food and Agriculture Organization).

Today corn is used for human consumption, livestock feed, corn syrup, plastics,
and for ethanol production.
Maize has gone through complex changes in use in parts of Southwestern Europe first
and Southeastern Europe in the last 100 years. In Europe maize is a staple crop and is
consumed in dishes along with wheat, barley, cabbage, beets, and the potato. Originally,
corn was planted in these regions to feed humans, it is a relatively easy crop to grow and
the crop yields fed large populations. More recently, these areas grow corn mainly to feed
In Africa corn is a staple crop that is combined with millet, sorghum, yams and
sweet potato. In Asia corn is combined with rice or millet, taro, sweet potato, and wheat.
Corn is an integral part of food and cultures all over the world. In parts of Africa, India,
and China corn continues to feed large populations. In these areas corn is a cheap crop
that is able to support a large population; these areas suffer from a disparity in social
classes, leaving a large poor lower class to feed; corn is able to fill that void.

Modern cultivation techniques:
With an increase in population and movement from a hunter/gatherer nomadic
lifestyle to a sedentary one, as well as improved technology there were many changes in
corn agriculture. During the crisis of the Civil War, corn became a big time business,

with about 840 million bushels a year. Lets fast forward to 1966 when the national
average per acre was 73 bushels, producing a total of 5 billion bushels a year valued at
over 6 billion dollars. In less than thirty years, Henry A. Wallace, a major corn farmer
from Iowa, “industrialized” corn breeding and laid the foundation for modern
agribusiness. Wallace wrote, “No plant has changed so fast in so short a time as corn…in
the hands of the white man”(Fussell 67). Still, corn production steadily grew as the U.S.
population continued to grow. Wallace wrote, “the progress of American civilization was
measured by the western expansion of the corn acreage”. Progress and Civilization were
not measured solely by plant expansion, but by efficiency of production as well. The new
age industrial farmer produced his crop by employing the minimum amount of human
labor, producing the maximum amount of corn. Where the Indian people required twenty
hours of labor for each bushel of corn, the Corn Belt farmer in the 1960’s and 70’s
required only six minutes. The story of the conversion of a native Indian corn into the
world’s most efficient industrial crop was for Wallace, “One of the great and vital
romances of all time”(Fussell 69).

Ethanol bio-fuel:
Recently corn production in the U.S. has hit an all time high. This is mainly due
to the increased use of ethanol, or bio-fuel. Ethanol is increasing in popularity because it
is easy to manufacture and process, and can be made from very common materials such
as corn and sugar cane. It is steadily becoming a promising alternative to gasoline
throughout much of the world. Ethanol is thought to be the “fuel of the future”, it is
highly combustible and a practical energy source that will aid our environment by
lowering emissions of green house gases (Hildenbrant). Below is a chart showing the
increase in corn production in the U.S.

In order to produce more ethanol, more ethanol producing facilities must be built
to process the corn into useable fuel. 2005 was marked by a flurry of activity in the
Nation’s ethanol industry, as ground was broken on dozens of new plants throughout the
U.S. Corn Belt and plans were drawn for even more facilities. As of February 2006, the
annual capacity of the U.S. ethanol sector stood at 4.4 billion gallons, and plants under
construction or expansion are likely to add another 2.1 billion gallons to this number seen
in the image below (Baker). If this trend continues, which it is anticipated to, the U.S.
ethanol production could reach 7 billion gallons in 2010, 3.3 billion more than the
amount produced in 2005 (Baker). Featured below is a map illustrating the areas in the
U.S. affected by the increase in ethanol production.

With an increase in demand for corn comes another issue: where to plant it? On
one hand the increase in demand for corn is good for the economy, and potentially the

environment, but on the other hand corn farming is harsh on the land and degrades soil
quality. The chart below illustrates the drastic increase in land use for corn in 2006/2007
in the wake of the bio-fuel corn explosion (Abendroth). Below is a chart that illustrates
the rise in land that corn crops are using from 2006 to 2007.

Corn has seen many changes throughout its existence. It started out as Teosinte, a
flimsy plant that was not too desirable of a crop, and has evolved into the largest most
productive crop in the world. It went from sustaining small groups and tribes, to being
produced by the hundreds of millions of tons. Corn crops alone bring in over 20 billion
dollars per year. As a crop corn has been highly influential, culturally as well as its ability
to sustain life for large populations. The corn plant is an amazing specimen and its rich
history is extremely interesting and mysterious. Corn is an ancient plant that was crucial
in the development and advancement of ancient cultures, and to this day is an important
aspect of cultures and the economy. Corn has come along way from its Teosinte ancestor,
and with the development and rising popularity of bio-fuels it looks like corn has a bright

Works sited:

Hildenbrant, Dale. 3/18/2007. Allendale Report indicates large boost in corn acreage in
2007. Farm and Ranch Guide. Pages 1-4.

Russell, Ken. Sandall, Leah. 2005. Corn Breeding: Lessons From the Past. Journal of
Natural Resources and Life Sciences.Volume 34, pages 127-127.

Baker, Allen. Zahniser, Steven. 2006. Ethanol Reshapes the Corn Market. Iowa State
University Agronomy Extension(corn).pages 1-3.

Staller, John. Tykoy, Robert, Benz, Bruce. 2006.Histories of Maize. Academic Press:
Burlington MA. 678pp.

Fussell, Betty. 1992. The Story of Corn. Knopf: New York. 333pp.

Abendroth, Lori. Elmore, Roger. 2007. 2007: Tri-modal planting dates of corn. Iowa
State University. Page 1.